Mark Williams is half of the Saffina Desforges writing partnership. He’s posted extensively on the e-book market and has direct experience of it, having achieved huge success with Sugar and Spice and Snow White. In his guest post, he reflects on the development of the e-book and paperback markets, and further expounds these thoughts at his blog – Mark Williams International.
You're spot on Jake, in that the occasional reader and impulse buyer is mostly going to be tempted by the high-profile authors who the trade publishers have paid to promote, and who in turn get picked up by the supermarkets, etc. But it won't just be the independent booksellers that fall. It will be the giants like B&N and Waterstone's. Sure, they may still exist in name, just as WH Smiths exists in name as a book seller in the UK. But the token array of books they sell will diminish and diminish until it's just celebrity hard-backs and such. The paperback, even for the mega-names like Patterson and King, will fade into oblivion. Perhaps lasting a year or so beyond the rest, but they cannot stay afloat on their own. The reason is actually in your post. "If you only read one or two books a year it's probably not worth buying an e-reader."
But e-readers per se are not the future of e-books. Tablets are, or whatever the next generation of e-reading smart mini computers may be called. If dedicated e-readers were the only way of reading e-books then the digital future would be bleak. But dedicated e-readers like the b&w Kindle are already all but obsolete. Even if you only read one or two books a year you will most likely soon own a tablet/smart phone or other device. Paper sales will therefore continue to decline and a vicious circle of economics will render the mass-market paperback commercially unviable. Book stores will either no longer exist, or just be selling e-books and coffee. The supermarkets will want prices to be so low for them to buy in, that the printing costs will no longer be covered.
Bear in mind that stores like Tesco (the largest UK retail chain) already has its own e-book store. Nothing too exciting now (though our books – Sugar and Spice and Snow White – are available there!), but who knows where it might be in a year's time. The thing is, there's nothing to stop Tesco or whosoever having an e-book display at the till, with a button to click and the book is downloaded to the customer's Smartphone, tablet or whatever, as soon as they pay for their shopping.
Books take shelf space. Shelf space is money. The supermarkets will stock books only so long as they are bringing in more than they cost to stock. Why would they waste shelf space on wads of paper that fewer and fewer people will buy when they can sell e-books with no shelf space?
If I were running a supermarket chain I would be looking at a leisure cafe instead of those diabolical shopper's restaurants. A leisure cafe where customers can buy expensive coffee with huge profit margins while sampling e-books from the supermarket's own e-book store, click to buy and have the e-book added to the check-out tally when they pick up their groceries. The only way paperbacks will survive is if POD technology improves to the point where, in those same cafes, you can order a print version of whatever book you wish and have it printed in-store to a professional standard at a sensible price and it be ready to collect at the checkout. But the practicalities of operating (staff) and storage (paper and ink for printing) would leave the supermarket or bookstore little better off than before, and catering for a diehard and ever-diminishing minority of readers.
It's a matter of time before similar browsing cafes appear at major train stations and airports, most likely by the big e-retailers teaming up with the big coffee bars. New technology will determine just how the future pans out, but the mass paperback is on its death bed.